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Nathan Cochrane — FEE, FI, FOE, FUD

Linux Today column 0.1
By NATHAN COCHRANE

IN the last few weeks I have seen an increasing amount of fear,
uncertainty and doubt (FUD) spread about the Linux operating
system. It leads me to conclude that while slow to start, the giant
Microsoft, who learned FUD-spreading at the feet of master IBM, has
awoken.

There are the usual attempts to hide FUD behind the guise of
balanced reporting. The easiest way to do this is by conceding the
object of your attack has certain minor merits, then go on to say
how these are drowned by all its short-comings. It is a very
effective technique that any skilled middle-school debater is
taught, and in which public relations consultants and newspaper
columnists alike excel.

It runs something like: “Well, [Acme Product] is good for [minor
points 1, 2, 3, …], but not much good for [what I think is
important], therefore you should discard [Acme Product] in favor of
[Incumbent Product]”.

FUD is only
destructive when
it is in error,
yet perceived to
be true.

Firstly, FUD is only destructive when it is in error yet perceived
to be true. It is not FUD if the criticism is true or people don’t
believe it. Linux does have problems. We know what they are. There
aren’t a lot of mainstream desktop applications, yet. There are
issues to do with standardised desktop environments. New users are
still having a hard time and support still has a way to go. There
is also a problem getting pre-installed PCs into the channel, which
is being tackled by corner-store PC resellers, established box
shifters like Dell and HP and emerging heavyweights like VA
Research.

Secondly, FUD can hold little persuasiveness in any truly open
market. The same forces that generate great products, also scale to
combat FUD.

The purpose of this column is to not be a blindly-accepting
Linux cheer squad — go elsewhere for that. It will instead attempt
to be a burr under the saddle of the Linux community. It will seek
out weak spots within Linux development, things that are missing or
have been poorly implemented, and attempt to highlight them
constructively. This is not FUD. For the reasons outlined above, we
have nothing to fear from FUD. Our biggest enemy is groupthink and
complacency. Groupthink occurs in any closely-knit group where
people won’t voice their real concerns because of fear of being
ostracised from the group or ridiculed. It also often occurs in
groups that are under attack from outside forces.

(An interesting aside to this is although Microsoft is a
renowned FUD-spreader, it is also massively vulnerable to attack in
a way open source communities can never be.)

The Linux community can never forget what made it great was
egoless programming, group effort not groupthink, and
objectivity.

But for now I want to attack one of my favorite items of FUD —
Linux’s perceived difficulty of use and installation.

The first stems from a belief that all Unix religions rely
heavily on the command line. They do, as does Windows with DOS. Try
doing anything really useful in a Microsoft operating system and
you will find yourself dropping into DOS frequently. Worse, the
System Registry, which was supposed to kill the confusion over
autoexec.bat and config.sys files, has instead made these earlier
configuration trials seem trivial.

And what of command lines? Modern Unices including Linux no more
rely on them than any other desktop operating system. And the
world’s most popular operating system — Microsoft’s command line
only Disk-based OS (DOS) — is still the most popular. If
difficulty was a barrier to adoption, then how did Microsoft
succeed?

Linux along with other Unices has the benefit of a truly
client-server graphical user interface — X. With that you get an
astounding array of choices for how you look at your information
graphically — GNOME and KDE most notably. You can even make your
machine look like Windows 95 if you feel so masochistic, or the
Apple desktop if that is more your speed. Modern X-based systems
are amazingly user-friendly and often superior in design to
commercial variants because they put stuff in there that we as
users have demanded and created. It is not feature-building by
focus group, or marketing-driven bloat, but relevant technical
advances to make our jobs easier because we put them there. Sure,
there are some things I would like to see incorporated in future
desktops, that’s part of the reason for this ongoing column, but in
all nothing that keeps me from doing what I need to do today.

The other great myth is Linux is hard to install. This probably
comes from the fact that most PCs ship with an operating system,
usually Microsoft’s. In order to access another OS, you have to
make room for it and this usually entails a dual-boot scenario. But
contrary to the fear-mongers assertions, this is not an
installation issue, it is a channel industry regulation issue. If
you have to shove aside an unwanted operating system on your new PC
to put the one of your choice in place, then that is an issue for
competition watchdogs.

Speaking as someone who over the last ten years has installed
various Microsoft OS pre-Betas on hundreds of machines, I can say
with a degree of certainty that Linux is not hard to install. The
current releases from the likes of Red Hat are no harder to install
than a modern Microsoft operating system, given the same
circumstances. How many people who say Linux is a problem in this
regard have actually formatted their hard drive and tried to
install Windows? Not many, I would wager. How many have Windows95,
98 and NT on the same hard drive? For that matter, how many can
access Windows95 files from their NT installation like they can
with Linux?

Technically, I would rank myself as a notch above dolt when it
comes to Linux. I have installed it on about a dozen computers, but
like many others, am still learning the ropes. Part of the problem
is the need to throw away much of what I know about the way
operating systems function. This is no different than when I made
the transitions between any of my earlier platforms. It is easier
than making the change from DOS to Windows, and about the same as
the change from an 8-bit microcomputer to the 16-bit era of Amigas
and PCs.

I would encourage any prospective user to investigate a
shrink-wrapped Linux, get along to a user group and take the
plunge. It’s a little scary but very rewarding and if you are a
hobbyist you will soon rediscover the thrill of computing. If you
are a business person, you may also shave some fat off your bottom
line and expand into e-commerce faster and more cheaply than you
could have dreamed imaginable.

At the weekend I decided to set up my Lintel (Linux OS on an
Intel platform) PC to handle dialup networking so I could access
the Net. I confess, I had been a bit of a chicken until then. I
remembered the hours spent with my ISP when Windows95 Beta came out
trying to make the transition from Windows 3.11 running trusty
Trumpet Winsock to the cantankerous new 32-bit Microsoft dialup
networking function. I was not in a hurry to repeat that
experience. But I decided it was time to bite the bullet so I set
aside six hours of my weekend and gathered about 6,000 pages of
technical information on my desks, prepared to dive in.

I was disappointed.

Within no more than three minutes I was surfing the Web. With no
reference to any documentation and using just intuition, I called
up the Linux Control Panel and made the link to the serial port
that handles the modem. Next, I called up the Network Configurator,
added a PPP profile, entered the ISP phone number, a login name,
password and domain name server. Finally, I configured Netscape
with the proxy setting. That was it. No wandering through verbose
and confusing Win95 modem profiles, recursive and ambiguous Control
Panel settings, and the like. It wasn’t point and click Net access
but it was close.

I still couldn’t recommend either Windows or Linux for the
absolute beginner hoping to get on the Net by themselves, but Linux
is a lot closer than its commercial counterpart to that goal.

And it is my hope, now that I have asked for single click-Net
access, that all those ISPs out there using Linux to run their
enterprises will spare a thought for their customers’ desktops.

What about it guys?


Nathan Cochrane
Nathan Cochrane is a regular contributor to Linux Today and
journalist for FairfaxIT’s online and print publications. His
weekly column, OpenLine (http://www.it.fairfax.com.au/columns/openline/index.html),
looks at the open source and Free Unix communities, including
Linux. He can be reached at ncochrane@theage.fairfax.com.au

More articles by Nathan Cochrane can be found at
here
.

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